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Despite Track Record, Kamala Harris Says She Supports Decriminalizing Sex Work

In a new interview, the senator and presidential hopeful says that we shouldn't "criminalize consensual behavior," but has "no regrets" about supporting FOSTA/SESTA.

by Leila Ettachfini
Feb 26 2019, 9:55pm

Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris announced in an interview with The Root on Tuesday morning that she supports decriminalizing sex work, a position that some find surprising considering her support for FOSTA/SESTA—a package of laws aimed at ending sex trafficking by seizing and shuttering sites like Backpage, a popular destination for sex workers to advertise services—which have had devastating effects on the lives of sex workers.

"Do you think that sex work ought to be decriminalized?" Root reporter Terrell Jermaine Starr asked the senator in their sit down interview.

"I think so. I do," replied Harris, telling Starr that her stance on the issue is not new. "You should know my history on the issue," she said. "Back when I was DA [...] I was advocating then that we have to stop arresting these prostitutes and instead go after the johns and the pimps, because we were criminalizing the women, but not the men associated with it who were making money off of it and profiting off of it."

Though Harris only mentioned women sex workers in the interview, studies indicates that men account for between 10 and 20 percent of sex workers who perform sexual acts in exchange for money.

In countries like Sweden, where targeting those who pay for sex work instead of sex workers—as Harris proposes—is policy, sex work has only been forced further underground, making it more dangerous than it already is. “Pimps don’t accept the rationale that there’s a new law and fewer johns now,” Paul Holmes, a counter-trafficking expert, told The New York Times. "So if a girl is working 16 hours, she’ll have to work 20, and under more brutality."

Despite anti-trafficking networks condemning the laws and the multitudes of sex workers across the country who have been vocal about the ways in which the new FOSTA/SESTA laws have endangered their lives and their livelihood—in part by forcing them offline and onto the streets—the senator stands by the legislation, telling The Root that she has "no regrets" when it comes to her work helping see these bills into law.

Still, Harris says she supports the safety of sex workers. "On the issue of providing a safe place for sex workers, I'm a huge advocate for that, always have been," she says referencing the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids, a coalition she co-founded in the early 2000s, which, she says, "advocated for safe houses instead of incarceration."

While the senator maintains her support for decriminalizing sex work, she acknowledges that the issue is complex. "There is an ecosystem around [sex work] that includes crimes that harm people," she said. "When you're talking about consenting adults, yes I think we should consider that we can't criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed, but at the point that anyone is being harmed or exploited, then we have to understand that's a different matter."